It is that time again.
Time, that seems to bind everything, a tensile cord.
Not unlike the umbilical that detaches at birth.
Except in this case time stands still when life ceases .
Notions of past, present and future,
those neat convenient categories of time we create
To live and relive our memories
Sometimes in happiness, sometimes with nostalgia,
for things that are impossible to reclaim..
Tyranny the time.
“It was in another lifetime” she said. Then why does it feel like I am living it now?
“It was a long time ago” he began. But why does it feel like it happened just yesterday?
“It probably meant nothing” he said with his eyes downcast. It is a lie and I know it.
“It wasn’t meant to be” she continued, muttering forever under her breath. “I had plans and he had plans. And our plans had no room for the other.” Some things aren’t meant to be, or so I’ve come to believe. “There isn’t anything to it anymore. This is a futile conversation.” She faked a smile that spoke the truth. Then why do I fight to keep him out of my mind?
“I don’t remember much of it” he sighed. That’s because I tried so hard to forget.
“I’ve forgotten all about it until he showed up at my house.” Never realized how quickly memories come back alive when I thought I buried them deep down.
Lavanya’s eyes stayed on Khushi’s face, watching emotions run across her face. She averted her gaze from Lavanya but there was much to hide behind her set jaw. And she was finally talking about it, albeit after Lavanya’s repeated nagging.
Lavanya’s gaze didn’t miss the flush on Khushi’s face. There was an animation in her eyes, a life that refused to lay low in her. There was more to this story with Arnav Singh Raizada than what Khushi was letting on. She never talked about Arnav.
Well, there was that one day back then, in Delhi…
It was rather an evening when Lavanya remembered Khushi huddled on her bed in their dorm room that they shared. All Lavanya could see was Khushi’s partially covered shoulders, facing the wall and sobbing silent tears. She had tried asking, but there was no response from Khushi. It was a strange radio silence from a friend who never ceased talking or sharing everything. It was as if there was a line and Lavanya couldn’t cross it. So she never pushed Khushi to talk about it either.
Lavanya sighed a contented sigh, continuing to watch Khushi with an insistent gaze. The late evening summer sun brought orange shadows. Both sat on the sidewalk licking their ice cream cones.
“So, there isn’t anything to it then?” Lavanya asked, in an innocuous tone in encouragement.
“Nope, nothing to it.” Paying singular attention to her waffle cone, Khushi replied.
“Did you text him back?”
Khushi whipped her head to look at Lavanya in surprise. “That was a while ago Lav” she said.
“I know. So, did you reply?” Lavanya persisted.
Looking down at her whittled down ice cream cone, Khushi shook her head.
“Why not?” Lavanya doggedly pursued.
Continuing to lick her waffle, Khushi shrugged. She had written and deleted her texts to Arnav so many times that even a ‘hello’ seemed way too complicated for Khushi. She didn’t want to delve into it any more.
Lavanya poked her hand into Khushi’s open handbag, quickly fished out her cellphone and extended it to her. “Here, text him” she said. “I’ll even help you write it” she offered with a wicked smile. “Hmm, let me see” she began scrolling through Khushi’s cell phone for the messaging tool. “Where is his message? Ah here..”
“No!” Khushi grabbed her phone from Lavanya’s hands with surprising strength and dropped it into her handbag.
“But if there is nothing to it, like you say, then what’s the harm in texting him Khush?”
Khushi got up from the sidewalk to throw the last few pieces of the cone, garnering a few minutes for herself before she faced Lavanya’s resolute questions. Yes, if there was nothing to it, why does she feel paralyzed to respond?
Returning to sit next to Lavanya again, Khushi took her cell phone out and gazed at the blank screen. In low tones she said, “Because…,” stopped and sighed. She looked everywhere except her phone or Lavanya, letting the movement of her eyes garner a few moments of thought to herself. Biting the inside of her cheek absently, she continued, “Because, it’s too hard.” Raising her gaze to meet Lavanya’s, she whispered raggedly, “It’s too complicated.” She continued to look at Lavanya as if seeking answers, seeking strength. Silence reigned that moment between these two friends.
“I wanted to… I tried so many times… but…” she paused, searching for words, feeling exposed. But the twilight and the public sidewalk provided a sense of security to say things to her best friend, things she couldn’t tell herself.
She looked down at her cell phone, her fingers caressing the screen, wishing, willing the cold instrument to come to life. She felt an arm go around her shoulders, Lavanya’s strength seeping into her war-weary muscles. A hug from Lavanya was a panacea for her. Resting her head on her friend’s shoulder, Khushi raised her fingers to her neck, holding the ring without conscious thought as she ran her fingers over the ring repeatedly. There were so many what-ifs and but-what-abouts swirling with half-formulated opinions and sentiments that yielded a paralysis. She drew in a ragged breath and began reciting the alphabet backward.
z, y, x, w, v, u, t,…
A few quiet moments later, Khushi drew a resolute breath and straightened. “I am going to text him back” she said to no one in particular. Perhaps it was more to herself than for anyone else. “Yes, I am.” She turned to look at Lavanya, searching and seeking for any signs of disinclination or doubt, but finding nothing except warmth and love.
“Because I want to, Lav.” There! Fear surfaced again that everything was now in the open. Khushi asked “Can I? Is it okay? Lav?”
“Yes it is.” Unequivocally Lavanya urged.
A few more silent seconds passed when Khushi’s fingers sprang to life on her cell phone as she wrote her text message. At the same time, Lavanya noticed that her friend’s face was suffused with color and a lopsided smile began to unfurl. A reciprocal smile drew Lavanya’s dimples to the fore and she heaved a sigh of relief. Khushi will be fine, one day, soon, Lavanya knew for sure now.
Balmy cool breeze blew through Arnav’s car window. It was late in the night and Maya refused to leave until he promised to talk about the Khushi. Driving through the now silent streets of Delhi, one would be hard pressed to believe that the same roads clogged like those veins he worked on as a cardiologist. Delhi roads and clogged veins…funny, thought Arnav. A smile sprang forth on his face. Looking sideways to Maya’s profile, he saw that she was busy with her phone, a frown between her brows.
“All okay?” he asked. His eyes slid to his own phone which now lay silent on the dashboard.
Still no message. Perhaps there will never be one.
“Hm.. yes. It’s from my lab.” Maya mumbled, still busy typing on her phone. “And no, I don’t want to go home now, let’s get a cup of chai before you drop me home?”
“I haven’t forgotten.” Giving a quick glance at Maya, Arnav shook his head. She does not forget easily. He wondered why he put up with her.
“But I don’t remember much of it” he warned, knowing full well that it was a useless caveat.
A little while later they sat in silence in the darkness of his car, holding their hot tea cups with steam curling. Maya turned in her seat and tilted her head to one side and gave Arnav a steady look.
“You haven’t forgotten. I don’t think you’ve forgotten at all” she countered.
A quick frown sat on his brow and a muscle clenched in his jaw. He wanted to refute. He did try to forget and he did.
“There isn’t much to say Maya. It was a very long time ago and that is that.” He looked out of the window.
Why do people drink hot tea in the middle of summer? Looking down into his tea cup, he sniffed the strong combination of cardamom and ginger. He was almost done with his, he drank the last of his tea in a gulp and set his cup on the dashboard.
“Why didn’t you tell me about…” He paused with a frown, surprised to hear the question that simmered within him.
“Tell you what?” Maya asked, puzzled.
“About the… you know… the time when I had that gunshot?”
“You mean, about the time when you kept saying her name?” Maya’s eyes bore into Arnav’s without any hint of hesitation or doubt.
He couldn’t hold her direct gaze anymore. He had to look away and he did. He wasn’t hurt or upset, he was sure of it. He wondered why he was pursuing this line of questions if he wasn’t upset?
He sighed noisily and nodded, making a brief eye contact. “I just want to know why that never came up.” Before she could answer, he shook his head and said, “You know what, just ignore it.” He looked out of his window and shook his head again, “It wasn’t important.” Not even a second later, he repeated, more to himself, “It isn’t important.” It really wasn’t and Arnav Singh Raizada was not one to rake his past over hot coals. It was an unnecessary and futile exercise that reaped benefits to no one. All it did was leave ashes and splinters, left everyone with a bruised heart.
Coward his conscience poked him. Perhaps there was an element of truth in there, but the feeling of being trapped left him no choice but to decry his question. He muttered under his breath, “It really isn’t important.”
Maya pulled his shoulder towards herself with her palm so he was facing her across the gear shift. “Because you never said anything before or after that event. It was like it never happened. You know?” Maya’s widened eyes, guileless as ever. But she quickly raised a pointed eyebrow, “So, did it mean something? Then?”
Arnav didn’t have an answer for Maya at that moment. He remained still in his silence, wondering how he found himself in that moment, caught in the twilight of reviving his past into his present, with a woman who was not only his friend, but his ex-wife as well. Maya’s nudge brought him back from his internal dialog and he gave her a small smile. “It really isn’t important Maya.” He brought her palm into his own and squeezed her fingers.
“I didn’t mean to make you angry.” Maya said quietly. “I want you to be happy. I want you to seek happiness.”
Seek happiness? Seek Khushi?
Arnav looked up quickly to see if Maya was joking. All he saw in her eyes was earnestness.
They continued to look at each other until both burst out laughing at her unintended pun.
“See” Maya pointed her finger at Arnav and shook it under his nose, “It is meant to be, Arnav.”
“You are a silly goofball” Arnav chuckled quietly, shaking his head. He went back to his teacup on the dash, but found his cup empty. He sighed deeply as he placed his cup back where it was. This walk down memory lane was turning out to be more than he bargained for.
“What happened Arnav?”
Arnav leaned his head back and closed his eyes.
Did he want to do this now?
He was so used to pushing his errant thoughts away, not deliberately bring them to fore. He was used to quelling his memories of her, not questing them.
How long had it been, his heart willed the question. Thirteen years since his mind supplied. Time had certainly marched on for both of them. She chose to travel a different route and so did he. They both made their lives with different people.
But that one week when their paths crossed and the time they spent with each other was indelibly etched in him.
“I was visiting Akash during one of our summer breaks. He couldn’t take time off and so he invited me to stay with him in his hostel. Nani was away from home at that time, I don’t really remember why. But she didn’t want me to spend my vacation alone in Shantivan. And Akash insisted that I visit him.” His eyes seemed focused on the ceiling of the car. “I met her when she was an undergrad at IIT Delhi.” His staccato tone belied the enormity of his admission.
“They were a gang. All three of them – Akash, Lavanya and Khushi. Where one went, the rest followed.” He turned to look at Maya and said, “That’s how I met her.”
“Then?” Maya gently urged.
“Then.. nothing really. She and I… er .. Well, we spent time together, knowing full well that nothing could come out of it. Then she went her way and I mine. I left Delhi.”
Four days and four nights, they had with each other. Stolen moments they were. An unexpected tryst it was.
“Where? What do you mean you spent time together? With all three of them?”
A flash crossed his face. Maya would have missed it, if she wasn’t looking closely at him. But she didn’t miss it. This was difficult for Arnav. She could see it in the way his jaw clenched and unclenched as he spoke. She could see it in the way his Adam’s apple bobbed when he swallowed as he spoke and his whitened knuckles on his steering wheel.
He slowly shook his head. “No, just her. And me. Together.” He was unwilling to say more. Maya could tell. But he said more in those few phrases than he had in the entire evening.
He looked like he was in pain. She couldn’t see him like this, her gentle giant. She reached her hand across the gear shift to hold his free hand tightly.
Surprised at her tight grip, Arnav looked at their entwined hands and then at Maya. “It was a long time ago. It’s okay.”
Maya pulled their hands so that she could hug him. He wasn’t sure if he was consoling her or was being consoled.
“I am sorry Arnav.” Maya whispered into his shoulder. “I am.”
Arnav stilled in her arms and pulled back with his arms loosely around her. “What are you sorry for Pix? There is nothing to be sorry for, I told you that it was a very long time ago.”
He used to call her Pix when they were together. It was his allusion to her size and it was a running joke among their group of friends that while her physical stature was diminutive, nothing else about her was. He had quit calling her that when he got to know of her feelings for Kailash.
“You know what I mean, I am just sorry that it makes you…” she said, waving her arms to point to him. “Like this, sad.” She sat back in her seat. “It cannot be that long ago if it affects you like how I see it do. Time has nothing to do with it Arnav. You of all people should know that.”
This was the second time in an evening that she surprised him. First when she spoke of Khushi at the time of his shooting and now this. “It doesn’t affect me Pix. I was just feeling sad that she lost her husband so young. They were married and have a child. That’s all.”
Yes, that was all. But why doesn’t it feel like that inside? What else could there be, after all these years?
“So, you said that you met her this time when you were there in the US. What happened?”
Memories of an eight year old with her dimpled smile brought an answering smile to Arnav’s face.
“I asked Akash for her address. I showed up at her house.” The smile deepened on his face. “She was shocked to find me at her doorstep.” A slow chuckle escaped his lips. “She didn’t recognize me at all.”
“Have you changed all that much?” A furrow appeared on Maya’s brow. She shook her head and said, “I don’t think you’ve changed much at all.”
“I don’t think it has to do with me changing physically, Maya. I think it has to do with the fact that she didn’t expect me, me of all people to show up at her doorstep. That must have been a shock.”
“And?” Maya’s insistence was notorious.
Arnav was reminded of Mohan’s little “um-s” during their nightly story telling sessions. His little prompts kept the story going longer than Arnav wanted.
“And? I am not telling you a story.” He quickly retorted.
“Ah, but this is such a nice story. I would love to know more. And if you won’t continue, I’ll just have to … ” Suddenly remembering something that Arnav mentioned a few minutes ago, Maya continued her questions.
“So, you said she had a child? How old, girl or a boy?”
The mother in her was curious. She guessed all mothers had the same kind of curiosity, curiosity about children.
“You are incorrigible and shameless. Don’t think I don’t know what you’re doing.”
Maya grinned in response and raised her eyebrows to Arnav as if asking him to continue with his story.
“Alright. Khushi has a daughter, Mira. She is eight years old and is a …” he paused trying to find ways of describing that little girl who seemed to have gotten under his skin.
“She has dimples on her face that could beat the depths of Grand Canyon and a bright smile that makes her eyes sparkle” he continued with a smile.
“It was so sad to hear her talk about her Appa’s death.” He now looked at Maya, all traces of laughter and smile vanished from his face. With a somber look, he said “Appa, that’s how she addresses her papa.”
Maya nodded in response. Both adults looked out of their windows in the car.
“And… NK’s mother was visiting Khushi and Mira. I met her too. Three generations of loss and grief in that household, Maya.” Arnav took a shaky breath in, his own emotions rattled, evident in his succinct statement.
A sudden whirr of his phone brought both of them back to the moment. The phone was face down and it whirred again, its vibration moving the phone on the dashboard.
Frozen, Arnav stared at the phone, debating if he should pick it up.
What if it wasn’t what he was looking for?
He didn’t want to feel disappointed every time the phone beeped with a message.
“Aren’t you going to check?” Maya asked, looking at the phone.
“It’s probably Nani, asking if I am back.”
“Arnav, Nani never texts. She calls. Don’t you want to see who is trying to reach you?” Maya looked at her watch, noting the lateness of the hour. “At this hour?”
Arnav was reminded of his own watch on his wrist. “It is after midnight! Let me drop you home. Don’t you have an early shift tomorrow?” Arnav made quick motions to start the car.
“Will you just check that damned phone already?” Maya demanded loudly.
“Tsk tsk, remember curiosity killed the cat?”
“And cats have nine lives.”
“Nope, the correct response is, and satisfaction brought it back” laughed Arnav. He started his car and began driving to Maya’s apartment. He knew that she was peeved with his refusal to check his phone. And he wouldn’t put it past her to pick that phone up and check it for herself.
“Arnav Singh Raizada” Maya protested loudly, with her hand reaching to his phone. “If you don’t check it, then I will.”
With his one hand on the steering, he grabbed his phone with his other. “Maya Vallabh Singh!” Now he was openly laughing at her. “How old are you?” He teased.
“I hate you.” Maya grunted and looked out of the window, muttering softly under her breath.
“No, you don’t. And hate is such a strong word.” This was an oft repeated conversation between the two. Both fell silent with their easy camaraderie.
Another whirr of Arnav’s phone bespoke of another message. Before he could put his phone in his pocket, another beep marked the arrival of yet another text.
“It must be from that Khushi Gupta. That’s why you don’t want to check the phone with me in the car.” Maya declared with a knowing smile.
“Maya, nothing you say is going to make me tell you who that message is from. So stop it.” Arnav’s voice brooked no room for argument.
Maya turned and leaned against her door and said in a sing-song voice, “Arnav and Khush…shee.. Sitting on a tree….” She paused for effect and then said laughingly, “K.I.S.S.I.N.G.”
That immediately brought a shout of laughter from Arnav. He shook his head and replied, “Really? What are you? In second grade?”
He pulled his car into Visitors’ lot and waited for Maya to unbuckle herself. “Good night Pix.”
“So, you aren’t going to tell me who that message is from?” Still tenacious, Maya asked Arnav again.
“I don’t think it’s from Khushi. If she was going to text me, she would have done so a while ago. But she didn’t.” He looked out of his window to rearrange his expression to not reveal anything more to Maya.
“There really isn’t anything there Maya. It was such a long time ago. So… now, get out of my car so I can go home and go to bed.” A small smile resumed its presence on his face.
Maya leaned across the gear shift and grabbed his neck for a tight hug. She whispered into his shoulder, “I just want you to be happy… like I am.. I wish..”
“I am happy Maya.” Arnav reassured her with a squeeze. “Now get back into the house before that husband of yours comes looking for you.”
Maya got out of the car and began walking towards the building. But she turned immediately and ran towards Arnav’s car and tapped on his window. “I hope that message is from Khushi.” Saying that, she turned and quickly walked into the building.
It was a long day for Arnav, it certainly felt longer than it was. He checked on Mohan on his way up the stairs to his room, making sure his baby monitor was still functional. Mohan slept in a smaller bedroom right next to Arnav’s. The baby monitor helped Arnav more than Mohan.
The whirr of the small fan in the corner to create white noise mingled softly with the hum of the air conditioner. And there he was, on his back, arms and legs spread eagled like a starfish. In his hand was the Lego plane he probably had been clutching as he fell asleep. Except now Mohan’s fingers were loose with the plane resting precariously, half on his pillow and half on the sheet that covered him.
How could a little body occupy the entire bed, wondered Arnav. A small smile hovered on the corners of his lips, he smoothed his hand over Mohan’s curls, making sure his touch was almost imperceptible. Arnav pulled the sheet over his little body and tucked the edges in and smoothed out folds and wrinkles, remembering the ‘sheet not proply, Papa’ of his son’s demand. His son’s lisp just made the demand all that more important.
‘Sheet properly now my darling. Sleep well my baby” Arnav whispered into the night and closed the door softly.
Finally ensconced in his bed, he pushed his arms behind his head and got ready to sleep. Then as if he remembered something, he reached for his cell phone to finally check for the messages he refused to check earlier. Funny woman, his ex-wife, he thought. She always brought a smile on his face. An unabashed romantic she was too; had too much faith in people.
Arnav’s fingers quickly scrolled through his phone and he stilled at the sight of a name. His heart picked up pace and he found himself sitting up on his bed.
Hello Arnav, sorry for taking so long to write to you. Thank you for remembering that I asked you to text me when you reached home. I should have responded sooner… I am sorry. Hope all is well with you.
He read the message again and again. She sent this just a little while ago. It was her message that came through in the car then. His mind was on an overdrive trying to figure out all possible meanings of her text. He read the text again. He noted that she addressed him by his name, not by his initials, like she did when she first met him in Delhi.
What did she mean, she should have responded sooner? Why didn’t she?
All at once, Arnav realized that he was acting like a teenager. She was being polite, that’s all. Why was his heart pounding?
He scrolled to find two more messages from her… the last one was just a few minutes ago.
All of us are preparing for our trip to India, read that as shopping. So, Mira has asked me to check with you if there is any toy in particular that Mohan does NOT like.
So…will you text me back?
He remembered that they were making a trip here. If his heart beat any faster, it was going to seize. Excitement coursed through his body, while his mind cautioned his errant heart.
Oh, we will be there in Delhi in a week. So, we are in a kind of a rush shopping for things and packing.
That was the last message. He couldn’t stop his face from smiling.
Hello Khushi. Nice to hear from you. Finally! I wondered about your silence. And no, there is nothing that Mohan does not like. He is particularly fond of Legos. But please don’t stand on formality and get gifts.
Should he say more? Should he offer to pick her up from the airport? He hit send.
It was late and he really should get some sleep. Though he was not scheduled for surgery, he needed to have all his wits and marbles with him during his clinic rounds.
Placing the phone back on his nightstand, he settled back on his pillows, his left arm tucked under his head. He closed his eyes and realized that he was still smiling. He really should keep a check on his wayward emotions and not allow himself to spin out of control. But evoking his sidelined memories had brought all those feelings to fore that he had reined in.
A ping on his phone refused to let him sleep. It must be Khushi again, he thought. Who would text in the middle of the night here in India?
Was it Khushi? If you lie, you will rot – M.
Yes it was. Now, go to sleep – A.
He counted to seven, and there was another ping.
Woo hoo. Arnav and Khush…sheee… Sitting on a tree… Am very happy for you. Good night – M.
Shaking his head at the phone, he dropped it on the bed and closed his eyes. Sleep was a long ways off for Arnav.
A soft whirr woke him up.
It isn’t formality when the gift is meant for a child. Would it be formality if the gift was for you?
He shook his head at the phone. Was she flirting with him? How was he supposed to respond to that? Before he could type anything, there was another message from Khushi.
It is probably very late for you. Sorry for intruding on your sleep. Good night.
To hell with his sleep. His fingers flew over the phone, typing his message.
If the gift came from the right place, there is no place for formality. It depends on the giver of the gift. 🙂
However, there is that one meal you promised me. That has to happen, irrespective of the rules of formalities.
Ah ha.. he felt better with his response. Another thought made him reach for his cell phone again.
Give me your flight details. I can pick up your Buaji from her home and can bring her to the airport to receive you. It will not be a bother, so don’t hesitate.
There, the ball was in her court now. He raised himself to lean on the headboard and wondered if she would respond. It was late, he noted, very late. He really should sleep.
With a smile on his lips, Arnav Singh Raizada fell into a deep sleep after many years.
Life was beginning to feel better.